So, I made a New Year’s resolution a few weeks ago. I am not a big fan of those, but I figured this one was possibly one I could stick to. And I am sticking to it, as I just finished reading The Gunslinger (book one of the Dark Tower series), earlier this week. And I don’t think I have ever been this excited about a New Year’s resolution.
My only complaint was that I didn’t get started a little earlier. However, the NFL season has basically come to a close. Now that my poor, beleaguered Indianapolis Colts are watching the Superbowl from their couches (like 99.9% of the population), I suddenly have lots of free time, kind of like how Snoop Dogg had lots of free time when he announced he was giving up a certain, er, past time several years ago.
And if I can’t watch Andrew Luck show the world how to be a gunslinger on my television set, I can read about a gunslinger. Namely, Roland Deschain. Look up anti hero in the dictionary, and you will find Roland’s picture. Or at least you should. He is everything an anti hero should be, and more. He was an anti hero even before the term is thrown around like it is today. Jax Teller and Tony Soprano have nothing on this guy, I say.
So let us begin the journey into what may be one of the most epic sagas in literature of all time.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Every tale begins somewhere, and that is where The Gunslinger begins. An un-named man, referred to as a gunslinger, is chasing another man (who can only be the antagonist of the book) across a desert. We have no idea why the gunslinger is pursuing the man in black. Neither character has a name. We also don’t know where this chase is occurring. But if any line can hook us in, it is this line. Still one of the best lines in any book. Maybe the best line ever.
We learn that the gunslinger is a man named Roland, and he is on a quest, traveling a landscape that is similar to what we would find in a Clint Eastwood movie, or perhaps a Sergio Leone movie. Roland starts the journey alone, but he soon finds himself in the company of a man named Brown. Brown also owns a talking parrot. Brown offers Roland food, water and a temporary place to rest. We then learn, through a flashback, more of Roland’s journey. More specifically, we learn of Roland’s time in a town by the name of Tull. Roland had stopped in Tull for food and water. Roland also enjoyed the company of a woman named Allie. However, a preacher named Sylvia Pittson has a powerful hold over some of the people in Tull. It turns out that the gunslinger’s nemesis, the man in black, has been using Sylvia Pittson and a drug addict named Nort to turn the town against Roland. And he is successful, as the entire town turn, even Roland’s lover Allie, does indeed turn against the gunslinger. Roland is then forced to kill every single inhabitant of the town of Tull. No one is safe, including Allie, Sylvia Pittson, Sheb the piano player or even the children of Tull. Roland then moves on from Tull to continue in his quest, seemingly undeterred.
Roland also eventually abandons the company of Brown and continues to travel across the desert landscape on the heels of the man in black. However, he comes across a roadblock in an abandoned way station. Roland discovers a boy, about 11 years old, named Jake. Curiously, Jake possesses memories of television sets and automobiles, items not found in Roland’s world. Jake also states he was pushed in front of a moving vehicle and thinks that he died, but woke up in Roland’s world for some reason. Roland continues on his quest with Jake in tow. Roland saves Jake from an encounter with a succubus, but succumbs to the succubus in exchange for information regarding his future. He also shares tales of his boyhood with Jake, which include the hanging of the traitor cook Hax witnessed by Roland and his friend Cuthbert and Roland’s early test of manhood in which he obtains the right to call himself a gunslinger. Jake begins to grow wary of his new friend, as he senses Roland will stop at nothing in quest to seek the man in black.
Roland and Jake eventually make their way into a tunnel below the mountains, and use an ancient mine cart to speed their journey along. They are attacked by what Roland calls “Slow Mutants”, or horribly deformed creatures which are implied to be the product of a nuclear war. Roland and Jake also find the man in black but are placed in a situation where Jake ends up dangling from the tracks. Roland is faced with the choice of sacrificing Jake and continuing his quest or rescuing Jake and losing the man in black. Roland then opts to sacrifice Jake for his quest, letting him fall to the abyss and die a second time. Jake is not surprised about the choice and falls silently to his death.
Roland then catches up with the man and holds what he calls a “palaver” with his nemesis. The man in black reveals himself to be Marten Broadcloak, the man who attempted to trick Roland into an early test of manhood, so that Roland would be sent West and out of Marten’s way, leaving Marten to his own evil devices. Marten was unsuccessful, as Roland became a gunslinger at the unheard of age of 14. Marten then deals Roland cards from a deck of tarot cards. The first is “The Sailor.” The second is “The Prisoner”. The third is “The Lady of Shadows.” Lastly, Marten deals Roland the card that simply says “Death”, implying that Roland will be able to cheat death many times over. He also informs Roland that he will be sent companions to aid him on his quest, but that he will need to embark on a journey to seek out these companions. Marten also tries to entice Roland to give up on his quest and gives Roland a view of the multiverse, to show Roland his insignificance and also to attempt to intimidate Roland. Roland refuses to give up is quest, and is placed into a deep slumber by Marten.
When Roland wakes up, 10 years have passed and the man in black has disappeared, leaving only a skeleton. Roland is alone at the edge of the Western Sea, contemplating the next leg of his journey.
First of all, let me confess something (I hope I am among friends for this one). I read the Gunslinger about 10 years ago and HATED it. I almost gave up on the entire Dark Tower series (gasp) because I just did not care for it. I thought it was boring and even confusing in parts. Luckily, I pushed myself to go to the next books, and the rest is history. However, in my re-reads of the series (and there have been several), I always skipped to The Drawing of the Three and ignored The Gunslinger. I know, bad me. Very bad me.
But I am glad I took my New Year’s resolution to heart and started with The Gunslinger. I read the revised edition this time around, which may have helped. But I think I was just immature 10 years ago and was unable to appreciate this book, which is one of King’s best. Its even one of his overall best, ranking up there with The Stand, It, etc. I will still admit its a bit of a difficult book to read, with the flashbacks and disturbing moments, such as Jake’s death, but it is worth it.
I think my favorite part of The Gunslinger was the element of surrealism that is present throughout the book. Of course, this book has to be considered a western, first and foremost. But the presence of creatures known as “Slow Mutants” and the glimpses of “the real world”, such as Citgo gas stations reminded me that the science fiction element cannot be ignored. And the post apocalyptic imagery, combined with the western feel and the science element, just added to the surrealism. At times, I felt like I was seeing a Salvadore Dali painting of a Sergio Leone film (I don’t think it can get more surreal than that).
Stephen King has drawn controversy in some circles with the revision of The Gunslinger, but it is pretty clear that this was the right move. The revisions clear up some confusion and enhance the story overall. In particular, Allie chanting “19” in the presence of the undead Nort was one of my favorites. Given the significance of the number 19 throughout the entire TV series, it made sense why the man in black was able to turn Tull against Roland so easily and why Roland had to dispatch the entire town the way he did (although that will still be one of the most disturbing scenes in any book that I have ever read).
Another favorite part of mine in regards to this book are the flashback scenes. The flashback to Roland’s time in Tull was shiver worthy. He dispatched an entire town…an entire town! He even killed off the kids and the woman who was his lover! Even Sheb, whom he supposedly knew from another time and another place. And it looked like he had no problem killing everyone in an entire town, even the children. That scene really made me question Roland’s humanity, even though he did have good reasons for his actions. I also loved the flashback to the hanging of Hax the cook that Roland witnessed as a child, and his test of manhood when he obtains the right to call himself gunslinger at the age of 14. This test stood out for me in particular, because Roland used his hawk David as a weapon. Yes, he used a living bird as a weapon to battle his teacher Cort, so that he could obtain his guns…hawks are not everyday weapons. However, David becomes a tool for Roland and serves his purpose. David can perhaps be considered the first casualty in Roland’s quest. The death of David also serves as a foreshadowing for Jake’s fate. The flashback scenes also give us some insight into Roland’s character, making him into something more than a human killing machine.
Roland’s interaction with “the man in black” (aka Randall Flagg aka Marten Broadcloak aka many other names) was also an interesting point to the book. Normally, Randall Flagg is a character that works on the sidelines and tends to stay in the shadows. In other words, he is present, but tends not to be an active player. Flagg often gets others to do his dirty work for him. Eyes of the Dragon and The Stand offer many examples of this. This tendency is also present in The Gunslinger, as Flagg attempts to turn the town of Tull against Roland. However, Roland also directly confronts the man in black and survives. In fact, Roland even talks to the man in black and refuses to give up his quest. And still survives. This makes Roland quite the rarity in the King universe, as very few encounter Randall Flagg and live to tell the tale.
Like Calvin, I think I am pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. I don’t need to make New Year’s resolutions…not really. But even us awesome people transgress every now and then, and really should actually make a New Year’s resolution so we can become even more awesome. For example, pledging to read the entire Dark Tower series, starting with The Gunslinger and finding out what you missed in the prior reading is a pretty good place to start!
Stay tuned for my next review…of the The Drawing of the Three…same bat time, same bat channel!
Obviously, The Gunslinger is the first in a series of eight books and is connected to the other 7 books, so I will not even discuss that aspect. However, I found some interesting parallels between The Gunslinger and some other works by King, so here are the connections I found:
-Randall Flagg aka the man in black aka Marten Broadcloak is the most obvious connection. This is a villain who appears in several books, most notably The Stand, Eyes of the Dragon and possibly Hearts in Atlantis. He is the very definition of an uber villain in King’s universe.
-“Legion” is also mentioned. In The Stand, Tom Cullen refers to Flagg as Legion. Legion is also an anagram of the surname of Andre Linoge in Storm of the Century. King reminds again that Flagg is definitely a supernatural being.
-Sylvia Pittson is just one of a long list of King characters overtaken by religious mania. This list would include Mrs. Carmody (The Mist) and Margaret White (Carrie). In most King works, religious mania does not bode well for the leader or the followers, and the fate of Sylvia Pittson and the town of Tull is no different.
-“The Interloper” is mentioned in The Gunslinger. The Interloper is implied to be the Devil or the Anti Christ. This was a term used to describe Flagg in The Stand. Margaret White also made reference to The Interloper in Carrie.
-King also begins in building his universe in The Gunslinger, as he implies that Roland’s world is a post apocalyptic version of the “real world.” Mentions are made of items such as gas pumps, which are items readily recognizable in our world. Jake also appears to be from the “real world”, as he speaks of automobiles and television sets. There are also references to some kind of nuclear war, as creatures suffering the effects of radiation poisoning are mentioned multiple times. King has made some firm connections, setting up for the action in future Dark Tower books and other works.